Vincent D’Onofrio is a character actor’s character actor. Frequently altering his voice, appearance and general mannerisms from role to role, D’Onofrio has been one of acting’s best chameleons for decades. Make-up can help with physical change, sure. As can elaborate costumes. But when they’re at their best, D’Onofrio’s transformations cut to the bone. He’s a notoriously dedicated Method actor who never shies from going all in. I hope you enjoy this trip into D’Onofrio’s dark world.
Men in Black (1997)
Again, Rick Baker and David LeRoy Anderson’s Oscar-winning make-up greatly enhance D’Onofrio’s performance in Men in Black, but the emotion comes from the actor. The way Edgar chokes and mumbles on his words, or barely manages to walk every step – that’s all D’Onofrio. Plus, I love that people are still realizing that Gomer Pyle from Full Metal Jacket is the main alien in Men in Black.
Claire Dolan (1998)
I could talk about Lodge Kerrigan’s work for pages (and probably should here someday), but for now I want to highlight D’Onofrio’s subtle and conflicting work as Elton in Claire Dolan. The film is about its title character (played fearlessly by the late Katrin Cartlidge), a prostitute trying to escape from her polished New York pimp. Elton is a taxi driver she meets by chance and begins to have genuine feelings for.
D’Onofrio’s supporting performance draws out the best in Cartlidge’s own work. He pushes her to fully reveal herself, not in a physical way, but rather to expose her emotional nakedness. In addition to their stellar work together, D’Onofrio has an isolated scene in this film in which he’s robbed at gun point. The sequence is absolutely terrifying, and it contains some of the finest acting D’Onofrio has done. He plays the scene so convincingly, you almost feel your life flashing before your eyes.
The Cell (2000)
Carl Stargher is a murderous psychopath who needs to be stopped at all costs. But by creating a world in which doctors are able to go into Carl’s mind, The Cell does something many similarly-themed movies are afraid of, which is offer a reason to empathize with its killer. Obviously nothing justifies Carl’s lust for sadomasochistic homicide, but exposing Carl as nothing more than a severely damaged man-child is a very audacious feat. Naturally, D’Onofrio fits perfectly into the role, inhabiting the broken inner-child within Carl, while also convincing us that Carl is capable of horrible acts.
It’s my favorite incarnation of D’Onofrio as a serial killer, a character type he plays so well. (For an added bonus, check out his chilling turn in Jennifer Lynch’s Chained.)
The Salton Sea (2002)
The Salton Sea is a drug crime thriller that was sadly overlooked by audiences. Val Kilmer gives a great lead turn as a meth head who snitches for the cops, but the film is really alive when D’Onofrio is on screen. Pooh Bear is a batshit crazy dealer who earned his namesake after losing his nose from snorting too much meth. Much of the terror of this performance is rooted in the fact that Pooh Bear is completely unpredictable. There’s a scene, for example, in which he threatens to have a feral animal chew Kilmer’s dick off, unless Kilmer’s character offers up information. Watching this scene, you genuinely have no idea what’s going to happen. But you simply can’t take your eyes off D’Onofrio; jumping around excitedly, wheezing through every breath (a result of his lost appendage). Unhinged and manic, a perfect fit in D’Onofrio’s wheelhouse.
It took until the end of Episode 4 for me to fully appreciate D’Onofrio’s work in Daredevil. Watching his Wilson Fisk beat a goon halfway to death, then decapitate him by repeatedly slamming his head with a car door, I realized that not only is Marvel going for something very different here (thanks to Netflix’s fuckitall encouragement), but D’Onofrio is also making his own sort of announcement. As Fisk steps away from his headless victim and walks toward the camera, the thunderous music swells up and Fisk gasps for breath like a tired dog. D’Onofrio stops center frame and makes a mute proclamation louder than any monologue could. “You thought I was done?” he silently dares. “You thought I had nothing left to say?” To say D’Onofrio is back is a mistake. As Fisk, he proves he never really left.
Homicide: Life on the Street (1997)
Season 6 Episode 7 – The Subway
Remember that flashback in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs? The one where Mel Gibson has a final moment with his wife, who is pinned between a truck and a tree? She’s not in any pain, but the moment the medics move the truck, she’ll die. Yeah, well, Shyamalan clearly lifted that from this episode of Homicide, in which Vincent D’Onofrio finds himself pinned between a Baltimore Metro car and the metro track. But instead of spending his last few moments of life in a reflective, saddened state, D’Onofrio’s John Lange rants about his fatal misfortune. It’s a damn fine episode, one almost dominated exclusively by D’Onofrio and Andre Braugher’s tense conversation. “Swing away,” this is not.
The Best of the Best
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Could it be anything else? And I’ll admit, it’s easy to get distracted by the impressive physicality of this role. After all, it is damn near unheard of for a young actor to gain 70 pounds for his first major film role. By doing that, D’Onofrio risked type casting himself as The Overweight Young Man. But to D’Onofrio, gaining the weight was a necessity. He had to turn Leonard Lawrence into Gomer Pyle. He had to make him the joke, the clown, the freak show. In doing so, D’Onofrio gave every character in Full Metal Jacket, namely, of course, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), a reason to berate Leonard (keep in mind, we’re dealing with sadistic basic training reasoning here).
So the question is: by the time we arrive at Leonard’s fate, do you think he is justified in what he does to Hartman? Like Carl in The Cell and Bob in Chained, Full Metal Jacket dares us to empathize with a killer who turned cold, in part, due to societal circumstance. None of those films aim to justify murder, but they do try to explain where it can come from. That’s a lot of emotional angst to weigh, especially if you’re a young actor inhabiting your first major film role. But there’s an undeniable authenticity to Leonard’s inner turmoil that makes Full Metal Jacket so terrifying. It’s one of the finest debut performances I can recall. Watching D’Onofrio in this film, it feels like we’re watching an already seasoned professional. Apparently that was a great bit of career foreshadowing.
Adventures in Babysitting (1987)
Mystic Pizza (1988)
Signs of Life (1989)
Dying Young (1991)
The Player (1992)
Ed Wood (1994)
Strange Days (1995)
Feeling Minnesota (1996)
The Newton Boys (1998)
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
Happy Accidents (2000)
Steal This Movie (2000)
Chelsea Walls (2001)
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011)
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002)
The Break-Up (2006)
Escape Plan (2013)
The Judge (2014)
Jurassic World (2015)
Jurassic World (2015)